Sunday, March 14, 2010

Out of the frying pan

About ten years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter in Islington, north London, I visited the offices of Tourism Concern. I can’t quite remember what the point of the organisation was - the cynic in me says “to collect grants and provide its staff with a job” - but the general thrust of it was to raise awareness (awful phrase) of how Westerners were pushing their stupid fat white faces into previously unspoilt places around the world and messing things up for the poor innocent locals. Or something along those lines.

Now fast-forward to last month and my arrival in Cambodia from Laos. On a bus full of Westerners, I was engaged for a while in a conversation with two other Brits travelling solo: one an affable bloke in his mid-40s, the other a woman in her early 20s. The man had been to Cambodia a couple of years earlier and was dispensing various pieces of advice. He mentioned that he’d seen the big attractions like Angkor on his previous visit and was planning to stay with a friend who lived in the beach resort of Sihanoukville.

My eyes narrowed fractionally at this. Hadn’t I just read, in the course of my online research, that Sihanoukville had a reputation for attracting paedophiles? “Oh, stop it,” I told myself. “It also attracts lots of perfectly normal people who just want to lie on a beach all day. You mustn’t go jumping to conclusions like that.”

As for the woman, well, she’d been to Laos last year and was shocked at how much it had changed in 12 months. “It seems like there are no more unspoilt places in the world,” she said dolefully, and I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself asking her whether she saw any irony in that statement.

Two days ago, having run out of other tourist resorts to visit, I arrived in Sihanoukville clutching a hotel reservation organised by the guest house in Phnom Penh I’d just left. A moto rider was waiting to collect me from the bus station downtown and off we roared to the beachside district, which I detested almost from the word go.

I ended up taking just two photographs of Sihanoukville, which is probably two too many seeing as I‘d like to wipe the wretched place from my memory. One’s of a beach; the other captures the landmark Golden Lion Roundabout in all its tackiness.

The town is Cambodia’s answer to Corfu. ‘Crass’ barely covers it. I’m usually loath to whip out that snotty old line about being “a traveller, not a tourist”, but I was sorely tempted to as I watched lobster-coloured, beer-bellied representatives of my home nation being boorish, patronising and (in the case of some of the women) highly immodest. I felt like they were sticking two fingers up at Cambodian culture. But hey, who am I to judge? Clearly the Cambodians are happy to take their money.

If anything, yesterday was even worse. For one thing, I was woken at 7.30am by the high-decibel thump-thump-thump of music from an event at a school next door. “When’s it going to stop?” I asked the guy at reception.

“Some time tonight,” he said sheepishly.

There and then, I decided to move to a hotel downtown.

Huge mistake. Huuuuuuge mistake.

Not because there was a four-hour power cut last night that left my hotel in darkness and stiflingly hot (unlike most of its neighbours, which weren’t part of the affected block). And not because I had to lie in the dark listening to a pub band perform across the road, after I’d moved out of my old hotel to get a bit of peace and quiet.

I can live with inconveniences like that. What I couldn’t abide was being surrounded by men I suspected of being sex tourists and possibly child molesters.

Look, I know I can be naïve but I’m not stupid. I very soon twigged that something was amiss. Everywhere I turned I saw silver-haired white men sitting outside restaurants and bars or riding past on motorbikes. Young male tourists and Western women were conspicuously absent.

Looking for somewhere to have lunch, I poked my head inside a bar-restaurant opposite my guest house. It contained more old, grizzled, gruff-looking caucasian men (it certainly wasn’t a gay bar), some playing pool with young Cambodian woman.

I went to the Orange Supermarket on the corner and was taken aback to see - piled up at the front of the counter in an in-your-face way that would be startling in Britain, let alone a conservative country like this one - boxes of condoms and KY Jelly.

Proceeding down the main street, past Angkor Maiden Massage and the Hunnybunny Bar, I entered the Star Mart at the petrol station on the corner and bought a snack to keep me going for a while. Again, there were boxes and boxes of condoms at the front of the counter.

All circumstantial evidence, I know, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that there was some kind of all-pervasive sex trade going on and that local businesses were complicit in it.

I’m not being a puritan here, in fact I’m not even arguing about the rights and wrongs of prostitution. I just don’t want to share the same air with people who’d exploit Cambodia’s desperate poverty in this manner, so I left today for the sleepy resort of Kampot.

Was I barking up the wrong tree? As it happens, no. In an effort to verify my suspicions, I Googled the words “Sihanoukville sex tourists” and got some interesting results. Travelfish has a piece about expats who‘ve moved to the town and notes:

The downside of freewheeling Sihanoukville's beaches, charm and cheap living however, is its appeal to Western sex tourists, with the resort building a dubious reputation as a destination for paedophiles.

“If you do a sample of expatriates who live in Sihanoukville, there's a lot of younger people doing good work... at the same time there's a lot of creepy old beer-drinking, past-their-prime guys too,” says [a bookshop owner quoted].

Then there’s Jaunted: The Pop Culture Travel Guide.

I don't like Sihanoukville. Cambodia's boomtown may have nice beaches, but the juxtaposition of obnoxious tourists with grasping poverty, set against a backdrop of fevered development, isn't conducive to relaxation. Yep, the Cambodian coast is awesome but Sihanoukville is a shithole.

Out and about in town a couple of hours ago, I ran into one of my fellow minibus passengers, a semi-retired paediatrician from Vancouver called Stephen. Like me, he’d instantly taken to Kampot. “Sihanoukville is artificial,” he said, “whereas this place is authentic.”

I told him about the wonderfully friendly Cambodians I’d met in Stung Treng and Kratie and about the issues I’d had with Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Sad to say, it was a prima facie case for the corrupting influence of tourism on developing countries.

So apologies to Tourism Concern and that woman on the bus. I guess you had a point after all.

Depressing, isn’t it?

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